Witnessing slow death of the greatest

KNOW the way, if you’re a person of even passable technological competence, a text-message meltdown can be the order of the day before and after a big match, asks Enda McEvoy.

KNOW the way, if you’re a person of even passable technological competence, a text-message meltdown can be the order of the day before and after a big match, asks Enda McEvoy.

It was much like that here a fortnight ago. Texts before, during and after the All-Ireland final. Relatives, friends and passing acquaintances chipping in with their respective tuppenceworths. Me replying as the mood took me.

Anyway, one particular text struck a chord. It came from a friend ensconced these many years in the depths of west Clare and it arrived on Monday afternoon.

“I know that team owe us nothing and they’ve been magnificent ambassadors,” quoth she. “But when I thought it was all over in the first half I thought I’d be sick.”

Sums it up pretty nicely on two counts. Because Kilkenny owe their supporters nothing – a point we’ll re-emphasise at the bottom of the page – and because there were ample grounds at the time for suspecting it might indeed be all over before Barry Kelly got around to blowing the whistle for the interval.

On the latter point, a word of praise is due to David Herity. He had a bad day with his puckouts, but Kilkenny can be deeply grateful to him for his save from Andy Smith just before half-time. The champions struggled as it was to overturn a five-point deficit. Overturning a seven-point deficit may have been beyond them.

And that would have been no surprise. As an indicator of where Kilkenny are at this stage in their life cycle, consider the following statistic.

Prior to throw-in Galway had a collective 210 man-minutes of All-Ireland final experience (Tony Óg Regan, David Collins and Damien Hayes from 2005) between them. The champions had – wait for this - a collective 4,199 man-minutes, going all the way back to Henry Shefflin in 1999.

Now you can understand Kilkenny’s continued inability to get to the pitch of proceedings against Galway. They’re older, they’re slower, they haven’t the hunger of the dispossessed and they’re perilously close to the point where experience putrifies into age. 

Team hasn’t grown old together 

It’s not that the team have grown old together. Brian Cody wouldn’t allow that and he hasn’t. But certain critical components of the unit have grown old together, and that was unavoidable.

Henry Shefflin, Tommy Walsh and J.J. Delaney have been appearing in All-Ireland finals together since 2003. Shefflin, Walsh, Delaney, Jackie Tyrrell, Eoin Larkin and Richie Power have been appearing in All Ireland finals together since 2006.

These are very good – in some cases utterly brilliant – hurlers. Above all they are supreme competitors, as they’ve shown over and over again, in victory and equally in rare defeat. But this isn’t 2008. We’re not in Kansas any more, Toto.

Try this for another emblem of how the times they are a-changin’.

At their absolute zenith, Cody’s team were a pointscoring machine without parallel in the history of the sport. People like to maunder on about how they killed opponents with goals, and that was true, yet points were their real bread and butter. The goals usually came because they were content to keep the scoreboard ticking over in the first place.

Of the 18 games on the road to the four in a row, Kilkenny failed to hit more than 20 points on only three occasions: the 2006 All Ireland final against Cork (16), the 2007 final against Limerick (19) and the 2009 Leinster final against Dublin (18).

Fair consistency, eh? What’s more, there were extenuating circumstances in two of those cases, for Henry Shefflin departed injured at half-time versus Limerick while Dublin employed a seven-man defence.

But, again, that was then. This summer, in notable contrast, the All Ireland champions have fallen short of the 20-point barrier more often than they’ve reached it. Eleven points against Galway in the Leinster final, 14 against Limerick in the All-Ireland quarter-final and then 19 against Galway second time around.

Decline in scoring rate

It’s of a piece with the decline in their scoring rate in finals, from 2008’s unrepeatable 3-30 against Waterford to the immensely impressive 2-22 against Tipperary in 2009 to the barely sufficient 2-17 against Tipp last year to that not quite sufficient 0-19 a fortnight ago. The fifth gear that allowed them put Galway to the sword in the closing stages of the 2007 All Ireland quarter-final, and that sent Tipperary hurtling the same way in 2009, no longer exists.

To put it another way, we are witnessing the slow death of the greatest team ever. All very natural, all extremely predictable, all profoundly inevitable and unavoidable.

True, they did do a job on Tipp in the second half last month. But that, it’s now clear, said more about Tipp’s failings than it did about Kilkenny.

Sunday will ask more of Brian Cody than the vast majority of his 61 championship tests as Kilkenny manager. He cannot hope that those players who were poor or indifferent in the drawn game will flick a switch and suddenly, magically, go up two levels. The onus is on him to do something different in tactical terms.

The two meetings to date with Anthony Cunningham’s team were played on the latter’s terrain of choice and terms of engagement; this time around Cody has to be the one setting the questions if Kilkenny are to win. Trail at the break for a third successive time against Galway and it’s extremely difficult to see them turning it around.

The MacCarthy Cup holders need Michael Fennelly back to his rampaging best and they need Richie Hogan somewhere reasonably close to the enemy uprights. They also need to get Tommy Walsh into the game more.

Try him at midfield? The suggestion has done the rounds. Or bring Richie Power to midfield? Or T.J. Reid to midfield? I even heard a case made the other day for Paul Murphy at midfield.

Whatever the case, Kilkenny cannot return with the same hand. But neither can they expect four of the Galway forwards to fail to score from play again.

Strangled on puck-outs

One final observation. What Galway have done twice to the county at senior level, the Clare under-21s did at Semple Stadium last Saturday week: they strangled the Noresiders on their own puck-outs and gradually deprived them of oxygen.

What worked for so long for Kilkenny – their ability to win primary possession and put it to good use – is not working now. The pack is catching up. Or has already caught up.

Good reason

It’s one very good reason why everyone who can possibly do so should welcome the team home next Monday, whatever the result the previous afternoon.

Because there will not be many more Monday evenings for most of these Kilkenny players. And because, as yer woman in west Clare so rightly put it, they owe us nothing.

Enda McEvoy is a columnist with the Irish Examiner